As the clocks went forward and much of the country enjoyed unseasonably warm weather at the beginning of last week, there was a noticeable spring in people’s step (and the air) as we emerged from the other side of a long and challenging winter.

Corresponding with the latest measures to ease lockdown, the return of grassroots sports really could not have been timed any better.

The enforced closure of many sports clubs and outdoor recreation has perhaps been one of the most controversial lockdown decisions. The reduced risk of transmission in outdoor activity, combined with the need to keep the nation – and particularly young people – active for their mental and physical wellness, has regularly seen criticism from key industry commentators.

Getting the country active again
Just before the country went into lockdown for a second time last Autumn, Sport England released the findings of its latest Active Lives survey. It showed that the number of people classed as ‘inactive’ – i.e. doing 30 minutes or less of physical activity per week – had risen by 10million (more than the population of London), to just under 14million in the period between March and May 2020.

But it is in grassroots sports communities, and within team sports organisations where this impact has been felt the most.

It was no surprise, then, to see Sport England mark this latest milestone with the #ReturntoPlay initiative, designed to inspire people across England to get back to the sport and physical activities that they love, regardless of age, background or ability. Endorsed by the likes of England one-day cricket captain Eoin Morgan, the programme encouraged us all to get back out on the pitches, courts and courses in our local area, backed up by £270m in emergency financial support.

But while the return of grassroots sports is overdue, Sported, the UK’s largest network of community sporting clubs with 2,600 members, has raised concerns that some clubs and facilities simply won’t recover due to a lack of sufficient resources, volunteers and a fear that lockdown has caused permanent shifts in personal behaviour and habits.

Inspiring from the top down
Sport has always had a unique ability to bring people together and inspire. After the last twelve months, now could be the perfect time for a new wave of stars to step forward and leave a lasting impression for the next generation.

Not only will this summer see the Tokyo Olympic & Paralympic Games and UEFA EURO 2020 resume centre stage, together with the return of keynote annual events such as Wimbledon, but 2021 also marks the start of a landmark year ahead for major home sporting events, which crucially, reach all corners of the country and a multitude of diverse audiences in a way that we have never experienced before.

The Rugby League World Cup kicks off on 23 October, with the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments taking place concurrently over the course of the month-long competition. In tune with the sport’s cultural heartland, the tournament takes place across many different towns and cities, reaching some of the communities worst hit by a year of restrictions.

In July 2022, the Commonwealth Games will see some of the world’s best athletes and competitors head to Birmingham for ten days of multi-sport action, but it is perhaps the UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 in England that begins earlier in the month that has the potential to deliver the most significant lasting impact.

The growth of women’s football continues unabated with unprecedented levels of awareness, attendance and participation, combined with growing commercial and broadcast recognition, both internationally and domestically. Fresh off the success of England’s performance at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019, Barclays’ £20m sponsorship of the WSL was a key breakthrough, while the recent announcement of a three-year £24m broadcast deal split between the BBC and Sky will provide another huge boost for audiences, with a minimum of 18 matches shown free-to-air next season.

UEFA Women’s EURO 2022, therefore, provides a platform for global brand partners to deepen commitments to the women’s game and engage a new generation of fans through targeted investment and activation, while fans across England from London to Leigh, and Sheffield to Southampton, will have the chance to experience the buzz of a major international tournament on home soil.

Enabling from the grassroots up
The ways in which we consume and participate in sport have changed beyond recognition over the past twelve months, and in doing so, has made us all re-evaluate and appreciate the joy that we get from being part of a crowd, cheering on our team in the pub or being together again with friends and family.

But grassroots sport needs our help if it is to fully capitalise on its return. Those brands that support the elite side of the game watched by millions also have a responsibility and unique opportunity to protect the long-term future of the sport. Through funding and awareness, they can prevent the potential lost generation of talent at risk of falling into the lockdown gap of facility cuts and closures.

Just this weekend adidas partnered with two of London’s biggest leagues to cover all player subs for the first matches back since lockdown, including the capital’s only affiliated Women’s Football League, the Greater London Women’s Football League (GLWFL).

The initiative, which continues until next weekend, will support a total of 3,738 players from 267 teams, across two weeks, with the aim of empowering communities and creating positive change through football. The activity sits alongside adidas Football Collective (aFC), the brand’s commitment to bringing together individuals, organisations and club partners around the world at a grassroots level.

In a year where many people’s lives have been turned upside down, the return of grassroots sport is a welcome slice of normality and an opportunity for communities to reengage and reconnect with each other. If ever there was a time for brands to show their true value and commitment to the cause, then surely it is now.